I grew up eating compost. While that may sound virtuous — if not reminiscent of back-to-the-land advocates Helen and Scott Nearing — it is actually a lot more truthful to say that I grew up eating garbage. Yes, I found half-rotten potatoes and grapefruit under the train tracks and brought them home to make into casseroles and salads.
About half an hour drive from Jonah House — the Christian, nonviolent resistance community where I grew up — was Jessup Market, a wholesale fruit and vegetable market, where food came in on trains from fields across America and ships across the sea before leaving on trucks bound for supermarkets. A lot of it spoiled and got thrown out along the way. Boxes broke and spilled down onto the train tracks or rolled under tractor trailers. There were dumpsters full of food everywhere.
Sometimes as many as a dozen people lived in our house and everyone painted houses for a living. There was not a lot of money. But there was a lot of ingenuity, energy and willingness to get dirty hands. For years, we went to Jessup every Tuesday morning before the sun came up. We got there early to beat the pig farmers, who also had permission to take the garbage and the leftovers.
My brother and I would join the crew in the summer and on school vacations. Wearing old clothes and too-large gloves that smelled like sawdust and old oranges, we dug around in dumpsters, scrambled under silent trains and walked miles along the terminal collecting the smooshed, the half rotten, the excess, the unripe and the overripe.
Sometimes, Dad let one of us drive the truck along the rows or share his honey-sweetened coffee. Other times, we got to ride home in the back of the pickup, perched atop piles of boxes. The produce and fruit was not just for us. A line of neighbors — their numbers curling around our block — waited for the truck each week. Folks would go along the line of boxes we placed on the ground, taking fruits and vegetables from each one. How many depended on what we had and how long the line was. Dad would eyeball the five crates of apples and the 70 people and say “four apples each.” If we had a lot of something, people could take a lot. If we had a little, everyone would just get a little taste. We’d set some boxes of food aside for our community at the beginning and then take all the leftovers too.
That was just the beginning of our work. After saying goodbye to all the people, breaking down all the cardboard boxes and crates, and sweeping up the detritus and mush, we’d go inside to process our food haul. Some folks worked on a massive fruit salad and an equally massive green salad, while others picked through greens, pulling off old and yellow leaves before parboiling the remainders for freezing.
The work happened around our dining room table. There were bowls of vinegar-laced cold water for washing off the dirt and grime, layers of dish towels for drying vegetables, an array of repurposed plastic bags for repacking the good stuff, and huge piles of rotten bits that had been carefully carved off the good food. Sometimes dinner preparation started right there, with someone trying to figure out how to combine green beans, artichokes and red peppers into a meal for 10.
It required a lot of creativity and some subterfuge to get through all the produce and fruit before it rotted away. Dad was always trying to hide grapefruit in the Sunday morning pancakes. It was also tough to find places to store all that food. Once, someone put a case of half frozen potatoes under a table in the living room and promptly forgot about it. It defrosted through the floor boards and dripped rotten potato juice onto my sister’s head, as she and I slept in the room we shared in the basement. It was weeks before the stench dissipated.
My family doesn’t dumpster dive today, but we haunt the “get rid of it” shelves in the produce aisle, where you can buy perfectly ripe avocados, somewhat bruised (but delicious) bananas, piles of loose grapes, somewhat split tomatoes, slightly spotty apples and plenty of other fruits and vegetables for dimes on the dollar. We don’t mind peeling away a brown spot here and there because it all enters the cycle of life in our robust and fecund compost pile in the backyard.
Throughout the growing season, we also have a community garden plot a few blocks from our house, where we grow lettuce, greens, tomatoes, peppers and herbs. Spring is in the air in Southeastern Connecticut, so my son Seamus and I just planted peas, lettuce and cilantro in our three-by-six raised bed. At the end of that project, his hands were filthy and new freckles covered his cheeks. I can’t wait until the pea vines break through the soil. Then, it will only be a month or so before he can pull snap peas off the vines and pop them right into his mouth. Last summer, his first strawberries were ones we grew ourselves and we’d come home from the garden every day covered in bright red berry juice.
In thinking about how and where we get food for our family, I was shocked to hear recently that about 40 percent of the food in the United States today goes uneaten. We throw out $165 billion worth of food each year. There is an insidious violence embedded in that percentage and that dollar amount — a blunt disregard for the labor of others and a callous devaluing of the gifts of the earth. Why? Perhaps because it is hard to remember the people who grow our food and the land that nourishes our bodies beneath the fluorescent lights and piped in Muzak of the grocery store. It gets lost amid the big displays and the elaborate packaging. Take breakfast cereal for instance — you pay more for the box and the cartoon character on the front of it than you do for the grain you pour in your bowl.
But when you work hard to grow, harvest and prepare food — just like when you work hard to scavenge, distribute and prepare it — you are a lot less likely to scrape it into the compost pail (or the trash can) at the end of dinner.
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